President’s House Compromised

Nothing is easy for the President’s House site on Independence Mall. The memorial’s inception, discovery, planning, and design stirred debate. And now, a little more than a year after its completion, the President’s House suffers from moisture problems that put displays and archaeological views out of order.

The President’s House, designed by Kelly/Maiello Architects & Planners, aims to interpret the architectural remains of the house that George Washington and John Adams resided in as president, as well as the memory of slaves brought to Philadelphia by Washington even as Philadelphia became a free city. Those stories are only half told right now thanks to malfunctioning video panels and foggy glass enclosures above the building’s archaeological remains. Plus, the masonry walls are unfortunately marred by salty white stains.

The Inquirer recently checked in on what is being done to resolve the site’s considerable issues. The unreliable flat screen monitors are being replaced at the designer’s expense. The article explained: The first five units, which carry much of the African American story told there, suffered from excess moisture and lack of ventilation, said Emanuel Kelly, principal of the firm. They overheated and died, and rainwater has seeped through inadequate seals, he said. Different monitors are on the way, and will be mounted on the walls instead of embedded within. While this alternative will hopefully solve the moisture/ventilation problems, the look will be less resolved.

An archeological dig revealed unforeseen structural remains of the original President’s House, which can be viewed by looking down through glass enclosures. But moisture problems and leaks have been troublesome for the glass archaeological remains. The leaks have reportedly been fixed, along with better climate control.

I worked for the National Park Service during the archaeological excavation of the President’s House site, and I often stopped by to watch the dig or take pictures. On the observation platform overlooking the site, I overheard strangers engage in real conversations about race and slavery. That was a gift to our city. I don’t hear those impromptu dialogues anymore at the President’s House, probably because the site itself hasn’t ever really worked. Are the malfunctions and technical flaws to blame or is it the memorial’s very design and interpretation choices? I wonder if the President’s House will still feel a bit lifeless after the repairs are made, despite the site’s incredible significance and powerful stories.


For  a refresher on the President’s House project, check out this short video:

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